For the first time since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the annual transportation funding bill does not contain a provision prohibiting regulators from raising the miles-per-gallon rules for the popular vehicles.
President Bush's signature.
"Is there movement? Yes," said David M. Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based coalition of business, consumer, government and environmental advocates. "Is it politically significant? Absolutely."
Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Escondido) said he appreciated "that the auto companies have to be given fair warning. But I think it's time to give them that warning."
Auto executives in Detroit oppose any federally mandated increase in fuel economy standards and maintain that consumers don't favor government restrictions because fuel economy and gasoline prices rank low among their priorities when shopping for vehicles.
"To keep regulating the market isn't the way to work," said General Motors Chief Executive G. Richard Wagoner. "Let's be honest: People have been buying the products they want based on their views of the needs they have for the products."
Increased fuel economy is "desirable if other vehicle attributes are being met," added Reg Modlin, director of environmental and energy planning for the Chrysler Group. "But . . . consumers are really more concerned with safety, acceleration, overall performance such as towing, and the overall package."
Administration officials have said they are open to tougher standards but are awaiting the findings of a congressionally directed study by the National Academy of Sciences--expected to be completed in July--that will examine, among other topics, how tougher standards would affect passenger safety and U.S. auto industry jobs.
Under a 1975 law, passenger cars must meet a "corporate average fuel economy" standard, known as CAFE, of 27.5 miles per gallon. But light trucks--a category that includes SUVs, minivans and pickups--are permitted to meet an average of just 20.7 mpg.
"If the [National Academy of Sciences] panel resolves that CAFE increases are beneficial and they fit within [Bush's] overall energy policy, I think we will see some increase," Modlin said. "But will it achieve its objective and decrease our dependence on foreign oil? We think not."
For their part, U.S. car makers promise fuel economy improvements in light trucks, whether federally mandated or not.
When the CAFE law was enacted, light trucks largely were used for such duties as hauling cargo. But the overall average fuel economy of vehicles for model year 2000 fell to 24 mpg, the lowest since 1980, as SUVs have become increasingly popular in the last decade for ferrying kids and for everyday driving.
Some advocates of tougher standards were encouraged by the House decision not to include the freeze on raising the standards.
"I think the climate is changing," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Tuesday. She has pushed for tougher standards and cited remarks by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) earlier this week that he is open to a "reasonable" increase in the standards.
Daniel F. Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program, said: "There will be an increase. The question is how high it will be. Even conservative, anti-environmental Republicans are saying, 'We need to do something.' "
Others are more skeptical, suggesting that the auto industry didn't see a need to lobby for the freeze with a man who is regarded as friendly to business now occupying the Oval Office.
Industry officials contend that higher standards would increase the cost and reduce the performance of SUVs.
But makers of light trucks say they will be able to boost fuel economy to an average of 22.5 mpg by 2004 and 26 mpg by 2009 with a "reasonable effort," according to a survey of auto makers in North America published in March 2000 by the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.